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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Tom Friedman is wrong

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- Tom Friedman of The New York Times is an absolutely terrific columnist. He has won a roomful of prizes -- including a couple of Pulitzers.

And he has earned all of them, along with the uncommon respect of his colleagues for being a reporter first and then a columnist. This week, Friedman wrote a column that made me so angry I now write to rebut it.

Tom Friedman wrote that we should not be concerned with the failure in the eight weeks following the end of the Iraqi war to find any lethal weapons of mass destruction, upon which President George W. Bush publicly made the case for the United States waging a pre-emptive war of choice against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

You may recall the address to the nation when Bush warned of the imminent threat posed by Iraq and said we must deprive Saddam of the ability to "threaten America with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons."

From his unique access to intelligence, the president warned citizens of Iraq's progress toward the eventual delivery of "chemical and biological weapons " through "unmanned aerial vehicles" in "missions targeting the United States." To put it bluntly: The United States had better "get" Iraq before Iraq "got" the United States.

Unlike Bush, Friedman had never argued that Saddam posed a grave threat to America. He wrote this week that the "real reason" for the war was "that after 9-11, America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world ... because a terrorism bubble had built up over there -- a bubble that posed a real threat to the open societies of the West and needed to be punctured."

Why Iraq? "We hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it, and because he was right in the middle of that world," Friedman wrote.

According to Friedman, "The only way to puncture that bubble was for American soldiers, men and women, to go into the heart of the Arab-Muslim world ... and make clear that we are ready to kill, and to die, to prevent our open society from being undermined by this terrorism bubble."

Tell me, Tom, exactly whom do you know professionally or socially in Washington who was urging his or her children to leave their "hardship duty" on Ivy League campuses "to go into the heart of the Arab-Muslim world" to "make clear that we were ready to kill and to die?"

It was not anybody in the civilian leadership on the Bush war councils or Cabinet. Of the 535 tigers on Capitol Hill who voted fearlessly to go to war, exactly one -- South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson -- had a son in the enlisted ranks of the U.S. military at war.

Did I miss the nation's leadership summoning all of us to collective sacrifice for the common good? Patriotism in 2003 did not demand that we use less, or pay more for, gasoline. Just put an Old Glory decal on your SUV and a flag pin in your lapel while pushing for a bigger tax-cut.

As of this writing, 177 U.S. service members have died in the Iraqi operation. According to the Pentagon, 12 of them -- 11 Marines and one soldier -- were among the 37,000 non-citizens in military service from nations such as Mexico, Guatemala and the Philippines. Their mothers never were invited to a White House state dinner. Their fathers were not Pioneers for Bush. They wrote no soft money checks. Born not to privilege or pedigree, these fallen warriors were among the small minority of us who truly "were ready to kill and to die." To pretend that the rest of us were also "ready to kill and to die" dishonors their courage and their sacrifice.

In a democracy, the informed consent of the people depends upon citizens' free access to the truth. If Friedman is right that the administration's weapons of mass destruction "imminent threat" was primarily a political cover story, then Americans were urged to make the most solemn of all judgments -- the decision to go to war -- primarily for reasons more synthetic than authentic. Now, after the fact, supporters of the pre-emptive war argue that it is OK if even for demonstrably wrong reasons the United States did the "right" thing.

As the duplicity and deception of Vietnam and Watergate remind us, the credibility of an American leader is indeed perishable. A leader who misleads his countrymen reaps the whirlwind. The leader's punishment is the people's mistrust. Mistrust breeds cynicism; cynicism breeds alienation. That could harm the United States more gravely than any "unmanned aerial vehicles" from Baghdad.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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